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The Host (Chapter 51: Prepared)

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I found Jared and Jamie in our room, waiting for me, worry on both their faces. Jared must have talked to Jeb.

"Are you all right?" Jared asked me, while Jamie jumped up and threw his arms around my waist.

I wasn't sure how to answer his question. I didn't know the answer. "Jared, I need your help."

Jared was on his feet as soon as I was done speaking. Jamie leaned back to look at my face. I didn't meet Jamie's gaze. I wasn't sure how much I could bear right now.

"What do you need me to do?" Jared asked.

"I'm making a raid. I could use some… extra muscle."

"What are we after?" He was intense, already shifting into his mission mode.

"I'll explain on the way. We don't have a lot of time."

"Can I come?" Jamie said.

"No!" Jared and I said together.

Jamie frowned and let me go, sinking down onto the mattress and crossing his legs. He put his face in his hands and sulked. I couldn't look directly at him before I ducked out of the room. I was already yearning to sit beside him, to hold him tight and forget this whole mess.

Jared followed as I retraced my path through the south tunnel.

"Why this way?" he asked.

"I…" He would know if I tried to lie or evade. "I don't want to run into anyone. Jeb, Aaron, or Brandt, particularly."

"Why?"

"I don't want to have to explain myself to them. Not yet."

He was quiet, trying to make sense of my answer.

I changed the subject. "Do you know where Lily is? I don't think she should be alone. She seems…"

"Ian's with her."

"That's good. He's the kindest."

Ian would help Lily-he was exactly what she needed now. Who would help Ian when…? I shook my head, shaking the thought away.

"What are we in such a hurry to get?" Jared asked me.

I took a deep breath before I answered him. "Cryotanks."

The south tunnel was black. I could not see his face. His footsteps did not falter beside me, and he didn't say anything for several minutes. When he spoke again, I could hear that he was focusing on the raid-single-minded, setting aside whatever curiosity he felt until after the mission was planned to his satisfaction.

"Where do we get them?"

"Empty cryotanks are stored outside Healing facilities until they're needed. With more souls coming in than leaving, there will be a surplus. No one will guard them; no one will notice if some go missing."

"Are you sure? Where did you get this information?"

"I saw them in Chicago, piles and piles of them. Even the little facility we went to in Tucson had a small store of them, crated outside the delivery bay."

"If they were crated, then how can you be sure -"

"Haven't you noticed our fondness for labels?"

"I'm not doubting you," he said. "I just want to make sure that you've thought this through."

I heard the double meaning in his words.

"I have."

"Let's get it done, then."

Doc was already gone-already with Jeb, as we hadn't passed him on the way. He must have left right behind me. I wondered how his news was being taken. I hoped they weren't stupid enough to discuss it in front of the Seeker. Would she shred her human host's brain if she guessed what I was doing? Would she assume I'd turned traitor entirely? That I would give the humans what they needed with no restrictions?

Wasn't that what I was about to do, though? When I was gone, would Doc bother to keep his word?

Yes, he would try. I believed that. I had to believe that. But he couldn't do it alone. And who would help him?

We scrambled up the tight black vent that opened onto the southern face of the rocky hill, about halfway up the low peak. The eastern edge of the horizon was turning gray, with just a hint of pink bleeding into the line between sky and rock.

My eyes were locked on my feet as I climbed down. It was necessary; there was no path, and the loose rocks made for treacherous footing. But even if the way had been paved and smooth, I doubted I would have been able to lift my eyes. My shoulders, too, seemed trapped in a slump.

Traitor. Not a misfit, not a wanderer. Just a traitor. I was putting my gentle brothers' and sisters' lives into the angry and motivated hands of my adopted human family.

My humans had every right to hate the souls. This was a war, and I was giving them a weapon. A way to kill with impunity.

I considered this as we ran through the desert in the growing light of dawn-ran because, with the Seekers looking, we shouldn't be out in the daylight.

Focusing on this angle-viewing my choice not as a sacrifice but rather as arming the humans in exchange for the Seeker's life-I knew that it was wrong. And if I was trying to save only the Seeker, this would be the moment when I would change my mind and turn around. She wasn't worth selling out the others. Even she would agree with that.

Or would she? I suddenly wondered. The Seeker didn't seem to be as… what was the word Jared had used? Altruistic. As altruistic as the rest of us. Maybe she would count her own life dearer than the lives of many.

But it was too late to change my mind. I'd already thought far beyond just saving the Seeker. For one thing, this would happen again. The humans would kill any souls they came across unless I gave them another option. More than that, I was going to save Melanie, and that was worth the sacrifice. I was going to save Jared and Jamie, too. Might as well save the repugnant Seeker while I was at it.

The souls were wrong to be here. My humans deserved their world. I could not give it back to them, but I could give them this. If only I could be sure that they would not be cruel.

I would just have to trust Doc, and hope.

And maybe wring the promise from a few more of my friends, just in case.

I wondered how many human lives I would save. How many souls' lives I might save. The only one I couldn't save now was myself.

I sighed heavily. Even over the sound of our exerted breathing, Jared heard that. In my peripheral vision, I saw his face turn, felt his eyes boring into me, but I did not look over to meet his gaze. I stared at the ground.

We got to the jeep's hiding place before the sun had climbed over the eastern peaks, though the sky was already light blue. We ducked into the shallow cave just as the first rays painted the desert sand gold.

Jared grabbed two bottles of water out of the backseat, tossed one to me, and then lounged against the wall. He gulped down half a bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before he spoke.

"I could tell you were in a hurry to get out of there, but we need to wait until dark if you're planning a smash and grab."

I swallowed my mouthful of water. "That's fine. I'm sure they'll wait for us now."

His eyes searched my face.

"I saw your Seeker," he told me, watching my reaction. "She's… energetic."

I nodded. "And vocal."

He smiled and rolled his eyes. "She doesn't seem to enjoy the accommodations we provided."

My gaze dropped to the floor. "Could be worse," I mumbled. The strangely jealous hurt I'd been feeling leaked, uninvited, into my voice.

"That's true," he agreed, his voice subdued.

"Why are they so kind to her?" I whispered. "She killed Wes."

"Well, that's your fault."

I stared up at him, surprised to see the slight curve of his mouth; he was teasing me.

"Mine?"

His small smile wavered. "They didn't want to feel like monsters. Not again. They're trying to make up for before, only a little too late-and with the wrong soul. I didn't realize that would… hurt your feelings. I would have thought you'd like it better that way."

"I do." I didn't want them to hurt anyone. "It's always better to be kind. I just…" I took a deep breath. "I'm glad I know why."

Their kindess was for me, not for her. My shoulders felt lighter.

"It's not a good feeling-knowing that you profoundly deserve the title of monster. It's better to be kind than to feel guilty." He smiled again and then yawned. That made me yawn.

"Long night," he commented. "And we've got another one coming. We should sleep."

I was glad for his suggestion. I knew he had many questions about exactly what this raid meant. I also knew he would have already put several things together. And I didn't want to discuss any of it.

I stretched out on the smooth patch of sand beside the jeep. To my shock, Jared came to lie beside me, right beside me. He curled around the curve of my back.

"Here," he said, and he reached around to slide his fingers under my face. He pulled my head up from the ground and then moved his arm under it, making a pillow for me. He let his other arm drape over my waist.

It took a few seconds before I was able to respond. "Thanks."

He yawned. I felt his breath warm the back of my neck. "Get some rest, Wanda."

Holding me in what could only be considered an embrace, Jared fell asleep quickly, as he had always been able to do. I tried to relax with his arm warm around me, but it took a long time.

This embrace made me wonder how much he had already guessed.

My weary thoughts tangled and twisted. Jared was right-it had been a very long night. Though not half long enough. The rest of my days and nights were going to fly by as if they were only minutes.

The next thing I knew, Jared was shaking me awake. The light in the little cavern was dim and orangey. Sunset.

Jared pulled me to my feet and handed me a hiker's meal bar-this was the kind of rations they kept with the jeep. We ate, and drank the rest of our water, in silence. Jared's face was serious and focused.

"Still in a hurry?" he asked as we climbed into the jeep.

No. I wanted the time to stretch out forever.

"Yes." What was the point in putting it off? The Seeker and her body would die if we waited too long, and I would still have to make the same choice.

"We'll hit Phoenix, then. It's logical that they wouldn't notice this kind of raid. It doesn't make sense for humans to take your cold-storage tanks. What possible use could we have for them?"

The question didn't sound at all rhetorical, and I could feel him looking at me again. But I stared ahead at the rocks and said nothing.

It had been dark for a while by the time we traded vehicles and got to the freeway. Jared waited a few careful minutes with the inconspicuous sedan's lights off. I counted ten cars passing by. Then there was a long darkness between the headlights, and Jared pulled onto the road.

The trip to Phoenix was very short, though Jared kept the speed scrupulously below the limit. Time was speeding up, as if the Earth were spinning faster.

We settled into the steady-moving traffic, flowing with it along the highway that circled the flat, sprawling city. I saw the hospital from the road. We followed another car up the exit ramp, moving evenly, without hurry.

Jared turned into the main parking lot.

"Where now?" he asked, tense.

"See if this road continues around the back. The tanks will be by a loading area."

Jared drove slowly. There were many souls here, going in and out of the facility, some of them in scrubs. Healers. No one paid us any particular attention.

The road hugged the sidewalk, then curved around the north side of the building complex.

"Look. Shipping trucks. Head that way."

We passed between a wing of low buildings and a parking garage. Several trucks, delivering medical supplies no doubt, were backed into receiving ports. I scanned the crates on the dock, all labeled.

"Keep going… though we might want to grab some of those on the way back. See-Heal… Cool… Still? I wonder what that one is."

I liked that these supplies were labeled and left unguarded. My family wouldn't go without the things they needed when I was gone. When I was gone; it seemed that phrase was tacked on to all of my thoughts now.

We rounded the back of another building. Jared drove a little faster and kept his eyes forward-there were people here, four of them, unloading a truck onto a dock. It was the exactness of their movements that caught my attention. They didn't handle the smallish boxes roughly; quite the contrary, they placed them with infinite care onto the waist-high lip of concrete.

I didn't really need the label for confirmation, but just then, one of the unloaders turned his box so the black letters faced me directly.

"This is the place we want. They're unloading occupied tanks right now. The empty ones won't be far… Ah! There, on the other side. That shed is half full of them. I'll bet the closed sheds are all the way full."

Jared kept driving at the same careful speed, turning the corner to the side of the building.

He snorted quietly.

"What?" I asked.

"Figures. See?"

He jerked his chin toward the sign on the building.

This was the maternity wing.

"Ah," I said. "Well, you'll always know where to look, won't you?"

His eyes flashed to my face when I said that, and then back to the road.

"We'll have to wait for a bit. Looked like they were almost finished."

Jared circled the hospital again, then parked at the back of the biggest lot, away from the lights.

He killed the engine and slumped against the seat. He reached over and took my hand. I knew that he was about to ask, and I tried to prepare myself.

"Wanda?"

"Yes?"

"You're going to save the Seeker, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am."

"Because it's the right thing to do?" he guessed.

"That's one reason."

He was silent for a moment.

"You know how to get the soul out without hurting the body?"

My heart thumped hard once, and I had to swallow before I could answer. "Yes. I've done it before. In an emergency. Not here."

"Where?" he asked. "What was the emergency?"

It was a story I'd never told them before, for obvious reasons. It was one of my best. Lots of action. Jamie would have loved it. I sighed and began in a low voice.

"On the Mists Planet. I was with my friend Harness Light and a guide. I don't remember the guide's name. They called me Lives in the Stars there. I already had a bit of a reputation."

Jared chuckled.

"We were making a pilgrimage across the fourth great ice field to see one of the more celebrated crystal cities. It was supposed to be a safe route-that's why there were only three of us.

"Claw beasts like to dig pits and bury themselves in the snow. Camouflage, you know. A trap.

"One moment, there was nothing but the flat, endless snow. Then, the next moment, it seemed like the entire field of white was exploding into the sky.

"An average adult Bear has about the mass of a buffalo. A full-grown claw beast is closer to the mass of a blue whale. This one was bigger than most.

"I couldn't see the guide. The claw beast had sprung up between us, facing where Harness Light and I stood. Bears are faster than claw beasts, but this one had the advantage of the ambush. Its huge stone-like pincers swooped down and sheared Harness Light in half before I'd really processed what was happening."

A car drove slowly down the side of the parking lot. We sat silent until it had passed.

"I hesitated. I should have started running, but… my friend was dying there on the ice. Because of that hesitation, I would have died, too, if the claw beast hadn't been distracted. I found out later that our guide-I wish I could remember his name!-had attacked the claw beast's tail, hoping to give us a chance to run. The claw beast's attack had stirred up enough snow that it was like a blizzard. The lack of visibility would help us escape. He didn't know it was already too late for Harness Light to run.

"The claw beast turned on the guide, and his second left leg kicked us, sending me flying. Harness Light's upper body landed beside me. His blood melted the snow."

I paused to shudder.

"My next action made no sense, because I had no body for Harness Light. We were midway between cities, much too far to run to either. It was probably cruel, too, to take him out with no painkillers. But I couldn't stand to let him die inside the broken half of his Bear host.

"I used the back of my hand-the ice-cutting side. It was too wide a blade… It caused a lot of damage. I could only hope that Harness Light was far gone enough that he wouldn't feel the extra pain.

"Using my soft inside fingers, I coaxed Harness Light from the Bear's brain.

"He was still alive. I barely paused to ascertain this. I shoved him into the egg pocket in the center of my body, between the two hottest hearts. This would keep him from dying of cold, but he would only last a few short minutes without a body. And where would I find a host body in this empty waste?

"I thought of trying to share my host, but I doubted I could stay conscious through the procedure to insert him into my own head. And then, having no healing medicine, I would die quickly. With all those hearts, Bears bled very fast.

"The claw beast roared, and I felt the ground shake as its huge paws thudded down. I didn't know where our guide was, or if he lived. I didn't know how long it would take the claw beast to find us half-buried in the snow. I was right beside the severed Bear. The bright blood would draw the monster's eyes.

"And then I got this crazy idea."

I paused to laugh quietly to myself.

"I didn't have a Bear host for Harness Light. I couldn't use my body. The guide was dead or had fled. But there was one other body on the ice field.

"It was insanity, but all I could think of was Harness Light. We weren't even close friends, but I knew he was slowly dying, right between my hearts. I couldn't endure that.

"I heard the angry claw beast roaring, and I ran toward the sound. Soon I could see its thick white fur. I ran straight to its third left leg and launched myself as high up the leg as I could. I was a good jumper. I used all six of my hands, the knife sides, to yank myself up the side of the beast. It roared and spun, but that didn't help. Picture a dog chasing its tail. Claw beasts have very small brains-a limited intelligence.

"I made it to the beast's back and ran up the double spine, digging in with my knives so that it couldn't shake me off.

"It only took seconds to get up to the beast's head. But that was where the greatest difficulty waited. My ice cutters were only… about as long as your forearm, maybe. The claw beast's hide was twice as thick. I swung my arm down as hard as I could, slashing through the first layer of fur and membrane. The claw beast screamed and reared back on its hindmost legs. I almost fell.

"I lodged four of my hands into its hide-it screamed and thrashed. With the other two, I took turns cutting at the gash I'd made. The skin was so thick and tough, I didn't know if I would be able to saw through.

"The claw beast went berserk. It shook so hard that it was all I could do to hold on for a moment. But time was running out for Harness Light. I shoved my hands into the hole and tried to rip it open.

"Then the claw beast threw itself backward onto the ice.

"If we hadn't been over its lair, the pit it had dug to hide in, that would have crushed me. As it was, though it knocked me silly, the fall actually helped. My knives were already in the beast's neck. When I hit the ground, the weight of the beast drove my cutters deep through its skin. Deeper than I needed.

"We were both stunned; I was half smothered. I knew I had to do something right away, but I couldn't remember what it was. The beast started to roll, dazed. The fresh air cleared my head, and I remembered Harness Light.

"Protecting him from the cold as well as I could in the soft side of my hands, I moved him from my egg pocket into the claw beast's neck.

"The beast got to its feet and bucked again. This time I flew off. I'd let go of my hold to insert Harness Light, you see. The claw beast was infuriated. The wound on its head wasn't nearly enough to kill it-just annoy it.

"The snow had settled enough that I was in plain sight, especially as I was painted with the beast's blood. It's a very bright color, a color you don't have here. It raised its pincers, and they swung toward me. I thought that was it, and I was comforted a little that at least I would die trying.

"And then the pincers hit the snow beside me. I couldn't believe it had missed! I stared up at the huge, hideous face, and I almost had to… well, not laugh. Bears don't laugh. But that was the feeling. Because that ugly face was torn with confusion and surprise and chagrin. No claw beast had ever worn such an expression before.

"It had taken Harness Light a few minutes to bind himself to the claw beast-it was such a big area, he really had to extend himself. But then he was in control. He was confused and slow-he didn't have much of a brain to work with, but it was enough that he knew I was his friend.

"I had to ride him to the crystal city-to hold the wound closed on his neck until we could reach a Healer. That caused quite a stir. For a while they called me Rides the Beast. I didn't like it. I made them go back to my other name."

I'd been staring ahead, toward the lights of the hospital and the figures of the souls crossing in front of those lights, as I told the story. Now I looked at Jared for the first time. He was gaping at me, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.

It really was one of my best stories. I'd have to get Mel to promise that she'd tell it to Jamie when I was…

"They're probably finished unloading, don't you think?" I said quickly. "Let's finish this and get back home."

He stared at me for one more moment, and then shook his head slowly.

"Yes, let's finish this, Wanderer, Lives in the Stars, Rides the Beast. Stealing a few unguarded crates won't present much of a challenge for you, will it?"

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